Not again

November 18, 2005

Four years ago, the 200-plus-page Patriot Act was passed by Congress so hastily that members later admitted they didn't even know all that was in it. Four years later, they're in the same boat - and they're about to pass a law that's even worse. Leaders of the House and Senate should slam on the brakes, following the lead of a bipartisan group of senators who threatened to do that yesterday.

The current version would not only allow the federal government to continue to invade the privacy of its citizens but would extend its reach. It would make permanent, with minor changes, 14 of the 16 provisions that were so divisive in committee in 2001 that they were assigned sunset clauses to get the bill through. The two remaining provisions - which treat how the FBI may gain access to private, Internet and business records and tap into private phone conversations - would be in effect for seven years.

The conference committee to resolve differences between versions passed by the House and Senate seems instead to have followed the directions of the FBI representatives who were in the room with them. While the bureau did not win "administrative subpoena" powers, with which it could have forced businesses and citizens to report on themselves and others without needing a court's permission, it would gain subpoena power for its "national security letters," which do the same thing.

The FBI has admitted it violated its procedures while doing national security investigations. It has used national security letter powers more than 30,000 times since late 2001, a 100-fold increase over its previous rate. It should not be granted more leeway.

Debate has raged on the Patriot Act almost since it became law. Referendums in cities and counties nationwide have decried it. There have been dozens of hearings on its provisions. This is no time for legislators to cave in to administration pressure or race to get a flawed bill passed. Congress should debate in full this act - and every member should read it first.

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